Most of the movie takes place within the confines of a dilapidated house. The owner, Edna (Robyn Nevin), suffers from advanced dementia, and has vanished into thin air. Concerned, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) arrive and begin a frantic search. Tensions immediately flare between the two younger women: Stuck under the same roof and stressed about Edna’s disappearance, they bicker about Sam’s seemingly aimless life. Kay also has to sort out some ambivalent feelings about her own mother.
Things get dicey when Edna suddenly pops back up and acts like nothing happened. She offers no explanation of where she’s been or why she left. Cognitive decline certainly played a role in vanishing, but Edna is also hiding something. It’s soon clear that some evil dwells within the house, and it might slowly chipping away at Edna’s health and happiness. By the time Emily and Kay can suss out the truth, it might be too late for them to save themselves.
Much of Relic will feel familiar to anyone who has witnessed ravages of any cognitive illness: Edna is prone to violent mood swings, and she turns up with random bruises all over her body. Her condition pushes Kay and Sam to the brink of their emotional tolerance. They argue fiercely about what should be done with Edna. Subtract the moody synthesizer and a few cheap jump scares, and this still would’ve been an effective little drama.
All three actresses turn in exceptional work. Nevin, in particular, does a great job with Edna’s emotional unpredictability: She speaks with gentle nostalgia in one scene, before tearing off into a murderous rage in the next. Mortimer gives Kay a cynical hostility; Heathcote’s granddaughter has a good heart with a hint of teenage petulance. (Even as adults, do we ever stop being kids around our parents?)
First-time director Natalie Erika James deserves praise for making such a minimalist movie so compelling. She draws a clear parallel between Edna’s condition and the horror of the house. Dementia breeds terror and exhaustion. It inflicts punishment and steals from its owner, one piece at time. Relic says a lot about Edna’s plight by hiding it in plain sight.
Ironically, this movie will provoke two very different complaints. It will either be too boring or too weird. And I understand both: After it was over, I wasn’t sure if I actually enjoyed it or just admired it. With a little distance, I’ll cop out and say quite a bit of both. Relic is a rarity in the horror genre. It depicts real people who say and do things for human reasons. For that reason alone, this movie deserves a generous round of applause. Relic is a good movie, and it will reward your patience with it.
95 min. R.